Northumbria University is developing a programme for students at the University of Zululand to educate them about the dangers of faddy dieting, laxative abuse and diet pills.
Julie Seed, a psychologist and expert in eating disorders at Northumbria, said young women in Zululand were at risk of developing eating disorders as they strive for the waif-like fashion ideals promoted by the West.
In a study that compared female Zulu students with their counterparts at a UK university, she found that half the South African sample were depressed about their weight.
The results of the study are all the more surprising because in Zululand fat has traditionally been regarded as desirable and eating disorders are virtually unheard of.
The study investigated 80 students in Zululand and Newcastle. It showed that the Zulus were heavier than UK students and had a higher percentage of body fat.
A significant number in each group had high levels of anxiety, and the Zulu students had high levels of depression as well. Girls in both groups generally wanted to be considerably thinner than they were.
Ms Seed said: "In the past, people were worried about black African girls being overweight, but I don't think obesity should be our main concern at present. Instead, we should be thinking about the risk of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa. They are driven by a desire to be more like the western girls that they see on television and in magazines."
Ms Seed said some of the Zulu students were abusing laxatives, fasting or using appetite suppressants to lose weight.
"They believe they need to be thinner in order to be fashionable and attractive to men," she said.
The study also showed that one in five of the UK students is underweight and 22 per cent had disordered eating attitudes.
The British girls had a distorted self-image, with most of them claiming to be bigger than they actually were.